Panda Bear, Tomboy
By ryan burleson
April 12, 2011
In 2007, Panda Bear released one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year: the windswept, sample-heavy Person Pitch. A collection so imbued with a fondness for tropical ephemera that it accidentally paved the way for a genre regrettably known as “chillwave,” despite sharing few of its characteristics. Person Pitch’s far more important achievement was that it effortlessly married experimental production techniques with the cozy melodicism of ‘60s-redolent pop. Panda Bear, whose real name is Noah Lennox, accomplished this by embracing a DJ’s sense of pacing and texture. Sourcing the work of Japanese folk collectives, surf rock legends, Medieval French composers and dub icons, Lennox manipulated their work into cohesive sound collages. He then blended those with his own sunny, multi-part harmonies, and produced an altogether narcotic experience. It was as if Brian Wilson had gone to art school with João Gilberto and the two of them bonded in a dorm room over their mutual affection for Aphex Twin.
Person Pitch was not without its detractors, however, a situation only enhanced when the divisive scribes over at Pitchfork declared it the best album of the year. (P4K writers have since named it the ninth best of the aughts.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the album’s hazy, understated aesthetic and occasionally sprawling track lengths invoked the derision of many, the term “pretentious” being bounced around the web like a beach ball at a crowded pool on spring break. And though Lennox comes across as someone who could care less, the sentiment must have been at the very least familiar; message boards have been lighting up with similar accusations relating to his band Animal Collective since they formed 11 years ago.
With the exception of palatable gems like “My Girls” and “Brothersport,” both featured on Animal Collective’s delightfully weird 2009 release, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the band is without a doubt an act reserved for boutique taste. The same is true to a lesser extent of Panda Bear’s solo work, too. But where Animal Collective have historically made obtuse, left-field experimentalism their M.O., Panda Bear allows Lennox to soften his focus so that he can telegraph the blithe climes of his adopted home of Lisbon, in lieu of the edgier salons of AnCo's New York City. Person Pitch, and now Tomboy, should be capable of appealing to just about anyone whose own sense of adventurism matches their taste for sublime, sun-drenched melodies. Indeed, if Panda Bear’s output is pretentious, then so is almost everything The Beatles made after 1965.
Lennox has every reason to feel good about Tomboy. From its stately, melancholic opening to the subtle roar of its final, shimmering coda, the record is overflowing with originality and heart. Almost entirely forgoing the sampler that defined Person Pitch—the only sound files here not generated by Lennox himself were sourced from his young daughter’s video collection—he instead assembled each of Tomboy’s 11 tracks around a vision simple in scope and triangular in shape: vocals at the top, guitars on one side and basic rhythms on the other. And while Lennox’s Wilsonian vocal harmonies will be familiar to anyone who’s heard Tomboy’s predecessor or Panda’s cuts on Merriweather Post Pavilion, the remaining tapestry has indeed changed.
The production, for instance, is richer and more dynamic than on Person Pitch, which was marked by its deliberately lo-fi, washy character. Hiring Spacemen 3‘s Pete Kembler (aka Sonic Boom) to mix the record went a long way toward that end, but so did Panda’s idiosyncratic attention to detail in the process of fleshing out synth, drum and guitar tones. That buttoned-up feeling extends to the songs themselves, too, each note strummed and rhythm sequenced part of a more present, cohesive and richly hued whole. At times, as on “You Can Count on Me,” “Drone” and “Scheherezade,” the colors are monochromatic and elongated, as Lennox sings over slowly evolving movements that rarely change shape. Elsewhere, he beckons the sand and the sun: “Surfer’s Hymn,” “Last Night at the Jetty” and “Benfica” are salty pop paeans to Lisbon and the dreams of a father for his family. “Tomboy,” “Alsatian Darn” and “Afterburner” are the driving, dub-inspired glimmer that bridges both lightness and darkness, as Lennox moves us to dance but subtly infers that some heaviness is afoot.
Because of the impact Person Pitch made four years ago and has continued to make since, it would be foolish to analyze Tomboy in a vacuum. But it would be just as trite to suggest that one is “better” than the other since the two records were made with respect to an entirely different set of parameters. What one can say fairly confidently is that Panda’s latest is easily the more accessible of the two, a work that compromises none of Lennox’s imagination at the same time it injects into pop music a digestible sense of the avant-garde that only an elite few have accomplished in any meaningful way during the last few decades. Call Lennox pretentious if you want, but not before you look closely enough to discern what drives him to create. You may find in the end that “getting” his work is as simple as recalling the warmth of your family and friends. That’s all he’s concerned with anyway.